The folly of horse-race journalism.

The folly of horse-race journalism.

The folly of horse-race journalism.

Politics and policy.
July 16 2003 6:53 PM

Easy Money

The folly of horse-race journalism.

The media follow only the money on the campaign trail
The media follow only the money on the campaign trail

Evidently I'm supposed to tell you today that Dick Gephardt is sinking. "Gephardt Is Lagging Behind In Democrats' Fund-Raising,"says the New York Times. "Gephardt fundraising comes in light,"agrees USA Today. "Weak Performance of Gephardt Is a Surprise,"frets the front page of the Washington Post. "Gephardt Cash Shortfall Raises Questions,"warns the Associated Press.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Why the fuss? On Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission released the candidates' official financial reports showing how much money they had raised in the second quarter of 2003. Gephardt raised $3.8 million. That's $3.8 million more than I raised. It's nearly twice what two-term governor and three-term senator Bob Graham raised. Of the nine established Democratic candidates, it puts Gephardt fifth in second-quarter fund raising and fourth in cash on hand.

Not good enough, says the press. Gephardt "fell short of his fund-raising goal by more than $1 million, raising questions Tuesday about his ability to excite Democratic donors and remain a top-tier candidate," the AP declares. The Post pronounces his tally "poor" and "unexpectedly weak." USA Today says it puts him "well below his $5 million goal and the top tier."

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But exactly who, other than John Kerry, is in this top tier? John Edwards, whose second-quarter receipts exceeded Gephardt's by just $600,000? Howard Dean, whose cash on hand exceeds Gephardt's by just $100,000? Joe Lieberman, who has raised just $700,000 more than Gephardt this year—and trails him in cash on hand by three times that figure?

This muddle-headed talk about tiers would be funny if it weren't so consequential. One day the press says you're out of the top tier because you didn't raise enough money, and the next day people stop giving you money because they've heard you're out of the top tier. All the while, the press pretends not to be driving this cycle. Gephardt's financial report "prompted new questions about [his] ability to generate support," says the Post. "The lag in fund-raising appeared to raise questions about [his] viability," concurs the Times, adding that "these fund-raising reports tend to take on outsized influence in shaping the perception among party leaders about the strengths of the candidates. And several Democrats said today that reality was posing a problem for Mr. Gephardt."

Notice the Alice in Wonderland language. "Reality," as though we were talking about something different from perception. "Raise questions," as though the press weren't raising them. "Take on," as though financial reports shaped perceptions, and perceptions grew into realities, all by themselves.

Obviously, this life-and-death money-counting game is bad for Gephardt. But it's bad for you, too. Gephardt has served longer in national office than any other candidate in the race. He was the House Democratic leader for 13 years. He has lots of interesting things to say. On Sunday he spent an hour and a half at a forum in Iowa discussing what's wrong with our country and how he would fix it. But if you've been scanning headlines in the Post and Times recently, you don't know any of that. All you know is that he got an endorsement from a labor union, and now he's slipping from the top tier.

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What could we be talking about instead of Gephardt's score in the fund-raising game? Here are two ideas I got from watching the Iowa forum on C-SPAN.

In 1988, Gephardt ran for president as an angry protectionist. He blasted "the Korean government" for its tariffs on American cars (he made no distinction between North and South Korea), and he threatened to retaliate against "their Hyundais." Sixteen years later, his tone has completely changed. He talks not about us vs. them, but about lobbying the World Trade Organization for a minimum wage in every country. He told the Iowa audience, "I've been in a lot of these places. I've seen where these workers live: Mexico, China, other places around the world. It is inhuman. And my deep belief is that if you work anywhere in this world, you deserve enough of a wage to live like a human being."

The other interesting topic is Gephardt's split personality on Iraq. He told a questioner at the Iowa forum that he had supported the war resolution because President Bush agreed to add language that required Bush 1) to do his best to win U.N. support; 2) to spell out postwar plans and costs; and 3) to clarify that the war wouldn't detract from homeland security or the global campaign against terror. Then, sensing the anti-war mood of the room, Gephardt ripped Bush for botching the postwar and possibly lying about the war's necessity. At no point did Gephardt reconcile his prewar justifications with his postwar denunciations. If the conditions in the war resolution were vaguely written, why had Gephardt accepted them? If they were airtight, why hadn't he pounced on Bush as soon as they were breached? Did Gephardt have his finger in the wind the whole time? Does he still think the war was right? He didn't answer that. He should.

Why does the press cover fund-raising instead of probing questions like these? Because money is measurable. You can say that Dean beat Kerry, or that Gephardt fell short of his stated goal, without being accused of bias. But the minute reporters start judging candidates based on policies, qualifications, or character, they get spanked. Never mind that these are precisely the standards by which voters think they should judge the candidates. The defining myth of American journalism is that it's subjective to call a candidate good or bad, but it's objective to call him a loser.

Well, it isn't. Some statements are false, some ideas are better than others, and calling a candidate a loser before the first vote has been cast is the surest way to kill him. I'm sure my colleagues in the press are surprised that Gephardt raised less money than he said he would. But I bet they're really angry that the figure he reported to the government on July 15 is $700,000 less than the estimate he put out two weeks earlier, when they were writing their first batch of stories about the second-quarter money totals. The Los Angeles Times, with typical faux objectivity, calls that discrepancy "a disappointment." It wasn't a disappointment. It was a lie. And we'd be a lot more truthful if we just said so.